We convened a special Players Champions Confidential roundtable of former Players champions like Greg Norman, Raymond Floyd, Adam Scott, Justin Leonard and others to talk about this year's tournament and whether they think the famous 17th hole is a gimmick or a work of genius. Special thanks to these gracious champions for their time. We hope you enjoy it.
1. Whose game suits the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass and who’s your pick to win this year’s Players Championship?
Adam Scott, 2004 champion: TPC Sawgrass does not necessarily favor any style of game in particular. However, it does test every element of someone’s game, which is why it is such a great course. Graeme McDowell would be my pick.
Greg Norman, 1994 champion: To win at Sawgrass you really need to have your mental game in top gear and then hit the ball solidly, positioning it well off the tee, understanding where not to miss the greens, and then finally putt well with good speed. There can be only one favorite for this coming week, Adam Scott. Closely followed by McIlroy and Phil and Tiger. But then again, the Players often throws in a dark horse to keep us all on our toes.
Mark McCumber, 1988 champion: If I were betting my house, I would go with Tiger Woods or Rory McIlroy. It’s a course that doesn’t favor any one player. I think it takes someone who drives it well, who is a good iron player because the greens aren’t overly large, and it tests you mentally—I wouldn’t say on the same level as the U.S. Open, but it tests you mentally because you’re going to go through a stretch where something isn’t quite right or where something funky happens, and you have to gut it out. That’s why I think we only have two winners (Tim Clark and Craig Perks) who had not won a PGA Tour event before. Most of the other players have won other tournaments, many of them majors. Tiger has won, but he hasn’t consistently played great there. I think if you’re off your game physically or mentally, it’s very hard to contend there.
Stephen Ames, 2006 champion: I think it rewards a guy who is a little more accurate off the tee. I’ve got to pick Tiger, but I know he doesn’t like TPC, even though he’s hitting it straighter than he’s ever hitting it before. I’ve still got to pick Tiger or even Rory.
Raymond Floyd, 1981 champion: To be honest, I don’t follow golf that closely anymore. I’m not even sure when the Players is. But I think you have to look at how a guy has been playing going in. I’d go back and check the money list. There are some guys who play well no matter what -- a certain course just fits their attitude -- so I’d see who they might be.
Justin Leonard, 1998 champion: I think Brandt Snedeker would have a good chance this year with as well as he’s playing. Obviously, he’s hitting the ball really well so far. I don’t think there is a formula to winning there. There are all kinds of different types of players who win. Guys like myself and Stephens Ames, who hit it pretty straight and grind our way around. Phil’s won, Tiger’s won, Davis has won a couple of times -- those are guys who can really get it out there and take advantage of the par 5s. I don’t know if there is a certain type of player who will win. I think that’s the great thing about the place. It identifies a guy who is playing really well that week. And there’s all kinds of players who can win that week.
K.J. Choi, 2011 champion: I feel that Tiger will win next week. Although he hasn't won the Players since 2001, he has been playing well and I feel that he may be due here.
Tom Kite, 1989 champion: I don’t get into picking. Leave that up to the media. On Tour, games change on such short notice. You go to the range Thursday morning and figure something out that’ll make all the difference. I enjoy watching to see who performs, not predicting who will win.
Henrik Stenson, 2009 champion: It is always ridiculously hard to pick winners in golf, and at TPC Sawgrass I do not think it is any easier. I guess at this point Adam [Scott] has to be a name to throw in the hat due to his form and confidence. Being a past champion at Sawgrass, he knows how to do it. (But hopefully so do I!)
Mark Hayes, 1977 champion: Always gotta look towards Tiger. He likes that course, and he’s playing well. If I had to pick, he’d be the guy.
Lanny Wadkins, 1979 champion: Haven’t even thought about it!
2. Where does the Players rank in importance for you?
Scott: The players recognize the significance of the event and we do view the Players as the fifth-best event. But it is still not a major.
McCumber: If you look at it through neutral eyes, how do you judge a tournament’s importance, through strength of field? It’s the strongest field every year, bar none. It’s the current, best, active players in the world, and it’s a full field. I think the course has proved to be a course that doesn’t favor one style of play. When Hogan won three majors, he didn’t even enter the PGA. So obviously, they weren’t thinking of majors the way we do now. I think this major thing really got started more in my lifetime, in the ’60s and ’70s when Jack came along wanting to outdo Bobby Jones. Is it a “major”? What certifies one? You guys probably have more to say about that than anybody. But you don’t get players skipping it. It was a big deal a couple of years again when Rory and Lee Westwood skipped it. I think it’s accepted as a tournament of major importance.
Choi: Many might say that the majors are the most important to them but the Players really has been the most important to me. When I first moved to the States, I made Jacksonville my first home and always wanted to win the Players.
Leonard: We don’t sit around and talk about it, but I think most players realize that winning the Players is just one tiny step below winning a major.
Kite: I never understood why there was such an adverse reaction to calling it a major, especially among the media, but among some players, too. You have a great field every year, and you play on a great golf course. Sawgrass has produced as wide a range of champions as any top tournament. It doesn’t favor any one type of player. You get long hitters, short hitters, wild drivers and straight ones. Since day one, it’s been like that. If it’s not considered a major, it sure looks like one.
Hayes: Most players think it should have been made a major a long time ago. That’s a leap, to make it the fifth major. But you’ve got the cream of the crop playing that week. The facilities are dynamite. I think the course is as good or better than any of them, except for Augusta. And you play it at the same place every year kind of like the Masters. I can say it’s as good a tournament as any of them, after the Masters. If they make a fifth, the Players would be the choice. It’s not up to me, though.
Norman: The Players may not be an official major, but it usually has one of the stronger and deeper fields of the year on a difficult Pete Dye golf course. So if you win the Players, you have really accomplished something. You have beaten the best players in the world on an extremely difficult golf course. It may not be a major, but that trophy sits very close to any of the four majors.
Wadkins: I think when I was playing I put it in the upper echelon—below the majors, but with Riviera and a few others on that next tier. At Riviera, it was mainly about the golf course. With the Players, it’s all about the quality of the field. And it’s our championship. It never felt like a major, but it’s almost there.
Floyd: It’s certainly not a major. I’d say it’s a rung under. As an American, I’d rate it above the World Golf Championships. But that’s just me.
Ames: If you really go back and look at it, the Players has a stronger field than the Masters. But you don’t get the same recognition for winning it because it’s not the Masters, it’s the Players Championship. But you get the same reward: a five-year exemption. For me, it was great. It wasn’t a major, but it gave me the same reward.